Traditional Knowledge, Bioprospecting and the rules of Convention on Biological Diversity

Traditional Knowledge, Bioprospecting and the rules of Convention on Biological Diversity

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If you are born and raised in Nigeria, there is a very high tendency that you might have, at a time, boiled some herbs renowned among your people to get rid of a mild malaria or fever. Your grandmother might have that tree in front of her house whose leaves she squeezes to get the red mixture she uses to paint her feet. This use of neem leaves for the treatment of malaria, cotton tree leaves for diarrhoea, among many other indigenous knowledge of your people about the resources around them is known in the world of intellectual property as Traditional Knowledge. Traditional Knowledge has no specific definition to capture all it entails but has been defined by the World Intellectual Property Organisation as “knowledge, know-how, skills and practices that are developed, sustained and passed on from generation to generation within a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity”.

Traditional knowledge is very important and has been of immense contribution to developments in areas of agriculture, science, ecology, medicine, pharmacy as well as cosmetics. In fact, an article on Journal of Natural Products titled “Natural Products as Sources of New Drugs from 1981 to 2014” by David J. Newman and Gordon M. Cragg reports that one third of all small-molecule drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 1981 and 2014 were derived from traditional knowledge.

How then, do these knowledge known to everyone within a region for several decades, become objects of intellectual property interest? It is based on the necessity of humans to continue seeking to understand the world around them and to procure solutions to problems. Firms have spent millions, and sometimes, billions in resources to explore the use of traditional knowledge in order to cater for contemporary needs through a process known as Bioprospecting.

Bioprospecting, also known as Biodiversity Prospecting, is defined by the United Nations Development Programme as “the systematic search for biochemical and genetic information in nature in order to develop commercially-valuable products for pharmaceutical, agricultural, cosmetic and other applications”. The ideals of Bioprospecting are lofty as it is aimed at making good use of natural resources in a way that is beneficial to all the parties concerned. A major challenge to bioprospecting, however, is that very minimal documentation of it exists and it can only be successfully carried out in countries that have national laws or policies regulating access to genetic resources.

What then do countries or regions from which traditional knowledge are acquired gain from bioprospecting and how do they ensure that the knowledge gotten from them is not abused? The Convention for Biological Diversity was created to attend to these worries. The CBD is described by the United Nations as “the international legal instrument for ‘the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of generic resources’”. The quote being derived verbatim from the objectives of the Convention as listed in Article 1.

Since the traditional knowledge is mostly gotten from developing countries while bioprospectors are from developed countries, there is a need to balance the relationship between the two unequal partners. Countries have created different institutions to cater to the management of their traditional knowledge such as Nigeria’s Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme (BDCP). BDCP is focused on utilising technical skills to make bioresources a viable vehicle for improved health care and sustainable development; which is essentially, using what you have to get what you need. In furtherance of its objectives, BDCP launched the Fund for integrated Rural Development and Traditional Medicine (FIRD-TM) in 1997 to manage the receipt and use of benefits from contributors to source communities in an efficient and consistent way.

In similar fashion, India, a country known for its rich cultural heritage, took a dynamic approach to the protection of traditional knowledge in 2001 when the government set up the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL). The library serves as a repository of 1200 formulations of several systems of Indian medicine which made the government sign agreements with leading world IP offices to prevent the grant of invalid patents to bioprospectors looking to exploit these knowledge.

Interestingly, it is not only plants –which are the most common instances of traditional knowledge going through biological prospecting- that are regarded as traditional knowledge. Paintings, music, rhythms, dance, ceremonies, stories and such are regarded as traditional cultural expressions and are as jealously protected as material things, in countries where there are active laws protecting traditional knowledge. To cede to the demand of nations and in furtherance of its fact-finding mission carried out in 1999, WIPO established the Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore (IGC-GRTKF).

Over the years, an interrelationship among the three concepts have propelled the exploration of resources and skills from regional use to global advantage; the main crux of interest being the exploitation of the intellectual property rights involved.

Author: Aisha Yusuf

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